Choosing a Good Probate Lawyer

It's a good idea to spend some time interviewing a few probate lawyers before you settle on one.

By , J.D.

If you've been named an executor and tasked with settling a deceased person's estate, you may be looking for a probate attorney to help you guide the estate through the probate process. If so, it's important to realize that you do not have to hire the attorney who drew up the deceased person's will—and you might not need a lawyer at all. If the deceased person's lawyer has the original will, you can just ask for it—you're entitled, as executor. You can then proceed to hire a lawyer you pick. You want someone you can rely on and work well with as you settle the estate.

How to Find a Probate Lawyer

Start by making a list of potential candidates. Ask around to see if anyone you know has worked with a probate lawyer they recommend—first-hand experience with a probate attorney is invaluable. You can also find local prospects by using Nolo's probate lawyer directory.

Once you have a list of attorneys, you can have a phone conversation or brief in-person meeting to assess whether each is the right fit. Below, we discuss how to make this determination.

Questions to Ask a Probate Attorney

When you meet with a lawyer you're thinking about hiring, it's easy to start getting into the nuts and bolts of a probate proceeding right away. Many lawyers who have done a lot of probates have a preferred way of working, and may quickly start asking you for documents and information.

Make sure you get some questions answered first. Tell the attorney that you plan to talk to several lawyers before you hire one for the estate work, and then ask each one the same questions, along these lines:

  • How many probate cases have you handled?
  • I want to handle a lot of the probate work myself, to keep fees down. Are you willing to work with me?
  • How do you charge for your work: by the hour, a flat rate, or some other way?
  • Do paralegals do some of the work, at a lesser rate?
  • Will you prepare final tax returns for the deceased person and the estate?
  • How long, approximately, will it take to go through probate?
  • About how much do you think it will cost?

If you think the estate is large enough to owe state or federal estate tax, the level of complexity of your case is higher. Ask some specific questions, such as:

  • If state or federal estate tax returns are necessary, will you prepare them?
  • How many estate tax returns have you prepared?

You may be surprised to find that you get very different answers from different people.

What Qualities to Look for in a Probate Attorney

Competence

Of course, you want to hire an attorney who's competent—one who knows the law and who can handle your probate case effectively and efficiently, even if an unusual issue crops up. But if you called attorneys who were personally recommended to you or are well-regarded by other local lawyers, you're probably going to be okay on the basic knowledge front. Probate, usually, isn't very complicated; in most cases, probate is only routine paperwork.

Communication

What may be just as important as finding a knowledgeable and experienced lawyer is to find a lawyer you feel comfortable with. First of all, you want someone who communicates clearly; many lawyers have a terrible habit of throwing around legal terms that clients have no way of understanding.

Helpfulness and Flexibility

You might also want to work with someone respects your efforts to learn about probate and, if you wish, to do some of the work yourself. Taking on some of the tasks yourself can help you save probate lawyer fees, which can be quite costly.

So in that first meeting, don't just admire the law school diploma that's framed and hanging on the office wall. Pay close attention to how clearly the lawyer explains the process, how well the lawyer listens to your concerns, and how respectful the lawyer is. Don't make a decision immediately; tell the lawyer that you'll make a decision promptly and call back.

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